IVLP ALumni Voices: Nonkanyiso Mabaleka

by Lynare Robbins

In September 2019 Nonkanyiso Mabaleka, a Zimbabwean artist and director of ONKA Productions, was chosen to participate in a three week long multi-city exchange program to the United States geared toward promoting social change through the arts through the International Visitors Leadership program (IVLP). The portion of the program that took place in Miami was facilitated by Global Ties Miami.

While in Miami Nonkanyiso and seventeen other IVLP participants from various countries met with cultural arts and community organizations such as Guitars Over Guns; a meeting with Mind and Melody; the Lowe Art Museum for “The Fine Art of Healthcare” workshop; a visit to the “Art After Stonewall” exhibit at Florida International University’s Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum facilitated by Miami activist, historian, and preservationist, Herb Sosa; an attendance at the Forward Motion Conference, Miami’s International Physically Integrated Dance Festival and Conference​; a tour of the Wynwood Murals; a South Beach Art Deco Walking Tour, curated by George Neary of Tours R Us; and a talent show consisting of dance performance, spoken word, and song, produced by and performed by the IVLP group and held at Global Ties Miami’s headquarters. On the experience, Nonkanyiso said, “We visited four cities, the last being Miami. I had been to Miami before but had never experienced it the way I did then. I had never really paid much attention to the architecture or the history of the city. All I had ever been able to do was rush into the city from a cruise ship and look for grocery shops, a bank or go clothes shopping very quickly. This time I got to see Miami as a tourist would, which was great.” Nonkanyiso shared that the IVLP group bonded during their time touring the United States and held a farewell party at the end of the program. “It was the perfect but very sad end to the trip of a lifetime.”

Since her trip to Miami, Nonkanyiso says that present times have been and still are very trying, yet interesting times. “Having come out of nothing short of an absolute blessing, I now experience a confusing and frightening time that will be remembered the world over. I will start my story from the time I was in the United States.”

Nonkanyiso shared the following story with us:

Arriving home brought me back to the reality that I had a lot of work to do. I had to stage the premier of my play, Eves Apple in two months which we did successfully. I was cast in a movie which was shot well into December. I had managed to put together a band which, whilst I was away became divided as individuals and became busy with other projects, prompting me to cancel my plans for the band and set them free. I would see to rebuilding the band at a later stage. In the midst of all that, my mother became ill and bedridden quite a few times which made it necessary for me to take time out to care for her.

When 2020 began, I found myself inundated with work, stemming mainly from requests from previous sponsors. There were requests for scripts for instance. Having no actual team for my company meant I was now busy trying to see to these, as opposed to the plan I had for the company this year. Meanwhile, I had seen so many initiatives that had stimulated my mind. I actually needed a little time out, firstly to relax from a terribly busy and demanding year and secondly, to rethink my whole strategy as an artist. What I hoped to do was stimulate a sense of community in my Eve’s Apple team members. I gave them a choice of volunteering either to visit prisons, old age homes or tree planting. We managed to be involved in a tree planting exercise, visited a prison a few times but by the time we wanted to visit old people’s homes, COVID-19 struck.

The pandemic came with both negatives and positives for me. Even before Zimbabwe went into lockdown, artists could no longer perform as people were not allowed to gather in large numbers. When a call for volunteers to help clean a facility in preparation for COVID-19 patients came, I really wanted to participate but then I heard that asthmatics are within the at risk bracket. That changed a lot of things for me. I decided I was not going to go anywhere until I understood more about the virus. When I got the flu, which for some reason was accompanied by a bit of an asthma attack, I decided to quarantine myself. 19 days later, the country went into lockdown. I welcomed the move. I had already started to put all my energy into gardening and put all things art down.

Soon social media, the news…. everything was about the killer virus. Yet at that time we still had registered only one death in Zimbabwe. We all watched daily, in absolute fear as the numbers grew slowly. Eventually we realized that our numbers were nothing compared to so many countries. This is when we began to doubt our government especially since we figured that we really did not have the adequate facilities to test, and care for corona patients. The conspiracy theories then followed with 5G and the end of the world now being the new thing we feared. In Zimbabwe, however, there was an even greater threat to people’s lives. Most Zimbabweans work in the informal sector. Many have found ways to hustle for a living. This means that one has to constantly be out there making the money, living hand to mouth. All of a sudden, people could not work, yet the numbers were really too low to warrant possible starvation, in people’s popular opinion. This was the onset of the ‘people against the police and soldiers’ period. As individuals set out trying to get to the shops, some trying to find a way to make a little money, they instead got arrested. The situation was taking its toll on families that were never really close. The stress of not having money, food nor breathing space caused the incidents of gender based violence to soar.

I remember when artists were attacked for not speaking out at the onset of the pandemic. Well…. it actually hit us first. We still were trying to make sense of it all; well at least I was. If you did not have your own recording studios at home you could not record music, for example. We eventually started to create little videos about the virus so as to calm people down, however we had to become calm first. Just when we thought we were starting to understand things, the police started to kill individuals in the streets, politicians reported to be pocketing relief funds and really behaving badly the world over.

Now people are starting to rise up as the attention shifts from the virus to politics. To many it feels as though whilst we were incapacitated, behind closed doors and locked gates, the elite were making even more money at our expense and politicians were involved in power struggles and not bettering the lives of the people. I believe we may see pockets of uprisings here and there the world over still, as the masses workout their frustration. Meanwhile restrictions have eased, allowing most people, apart from some such as artists, to go back to work. We came out to a change in the city. My home city council, Bulawayo, decentralized a lot of services so as to decrease the number of people coming into town. The city had undergone spraying and a lot of goods and vegetable stall vendors being relocated to areas closer to where their homes are. We like many countries, wear masks anywhere outside our homes by law. Large gatherings of more than fifty people are still not permitted. Zimbabwe actually has a much higher number of cases caused at first by returning Zimbabweans who could no longer feed nor care for themselves in neighboring countries and abroad. Right now, complacency is a greater threat. We are not watching the figures religiously as we did and talk of the virus seems to be falling on deaf ears. We have become numb.

Now, how have I managed to find the positive in all this? Well, I managed to get that long break I so desperately needed. This is probably the first time I have tried to write since the beginning of the pandemic. I have learned so much about market gardening with the family actually relying on the back garden for food and not the shops so much. I bought two rabbits and will soon start breeding them for meat, having joined a rabbit club and an association already. I am loving this. Rabbit farming is not that common in Zimbabwe however it is growing right now. We are coming together to popularize the meat and its farming. As for art, I intend to start afresh; rebrand from the name too if necessary. We still cannot perform live. I had to cancel shows. Be that as it may, this has been a great time to reflect and reboot.

As a family we may not have had much time to visit each other but the bonding has been great too. We flew my mother to South Africa where she was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the year. When the borders were shut, she was still in South Africa and has had to remain there, with my sister, for all her treatments. This has been a God send as we have seen nurses strike and supplies of medication dwindle in Zimbabwe now and again. With returnees being quarantined, I am happy for her to remain in South Africa until a time when she can come home straight, especially with her being elderly and at high risk for COVID-19 infection.

As a people we have learned new ways of sustenance, discovered how much stronger we are despite just how fragile this humanity is. My hope is that we come out of this a better breed than when we went in. This story is still being written and we have much to see, do and hopefully overcome. May God forgive and save us.”

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